Reading Amy Bloom on the Power, and Limitations, of Love


In the summer of 2001, seven months pregnant and working in a research lab in Iowa City, I signed up for an eight-week fiction-writing class taught by James Alan McPherson. I turned in my very first short story, “Immortality,” which Jim enthused about in class, though I was too inexperienced to understand his excitement. I told him shyly that I was a scientist but wanted to be a writer. “What do you mean you want to be a writer?” he said. “You are a writer.”

That summer Jim introduced me to Isaac Babel’s stories, and also lent me a tattered paperback of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man and Other Stories,” with notes from a conversation he’d had with Ralph Ellison scribbled on the endpapers. He mentioned a book he’d read a few years earlier, which he still thought about from time to time: Amy Bloom’s story collection “Come to Me.” At the end of the eight weeks, he gave me a wrapped present for the baby, whose due date was approaching.

How much of one’s life course is determined by a chance encounter? If I had not taken McPherson’s class that summer; or, if it had been with a different writer — the one who told me that English was not my language and that he saw no point in my writing in English — I might have remained a scientist, with a different career path and set of accomplishments and disappointments. Would I have endured the same loss? The child I was bearing then would die 16 years later by suicide. But my thoughts about my unlived life are often fleeting: A writer’s job is to contemplate her characters’ alternatives, not her own.

I borrowed “Come to Me” from the library and read it before going into early labor. I became a mother, a writer and then a creative writing professor, in that order. I have never stopped reading and teaching Tolstoy and Babel, and for a while — every semester for 12 years — I also taught Bloom’s “Silver Water,” a story from “Come to Me,” until I had to stop:

My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see “La Traviata,” when she was 14 and I was 12, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out.” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.

Thus opens “Silver Water,” a story about — but how can one ever say what a story is about, just as how can one ever say what life is about? Most years I had my students take turns reading the story aloud in class. There were discussions afterward, about craft and themes and this or that line, but I did not have much to contribute. All I wanted was for my students to hear the story as I had often heard it in my mind, the music of life and death and all that comes in between. Rose, the beautiful sister with the silver-water voice, has her first breakdown at 15, and will spend most of the next 10 years in hospitals, until she dies from an overdose. “Closing time,” she whispers to her younger sister, Violet, the story’s narrator, when Violet finds Rose with a Seconal bottle by her hand. Violet, not raising an alarm, sits with Rose until she dies.


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